A lad born with a lucky cap gets offered cigarettes amidst "O God Our Help in Ages Past".
On the morning of Thursday, June 19, 1924, the Canadian Pacific ocean liner S.S. Metagama was nearing the final leg of voyage from Glasgow, Scotland, to Saint John, New Brunswick. With almost 700 passengers aboard she had eased from her berth at 8 p.m. the previous Friday, June 13, and sailed down the Clyde River into the North Atlantic. It had been an uneventful crossing so far, one that the Metagama had made many times in her 10 years.
The Metagama was an impressive liner. Built for the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, she could accommodate 1,654 passengers and was capable of speeds up to 16 knots. During the First World War she had been pressed into troop transport service and had managed to escape the tragic fate of her sister ship, the S.S. Missanabie, which was torpedoed by a German submarine in 1918. After the war the Metagama made a name for herself as an immigrant ship.
Seafarers tend to be a superstitious lot; on this particular voyage the 165 crew members of the Metagama would have noted the date of departure, Friday the 13th. Furthermore, some of them had been aboard the ship a year earlier, when she collided with the Hogarth Line steamer, Baron Vernon, in the Clyde. Ships get a reputation. Many of the passengers, mainly emigrants from Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales, had probably also noticed on what date the crossing had commenced. But whatever anxieties they may have experienced initially, a feeling of excited anticipation was mounting as people looked forward to new lives in Canada.
West-north-west of the liner's position, about seven miles off the starboard bow, Newfoundland's Cape Spear was coming up. Not that anyone aboard the 12,420-ton liner could actually see the cape, nor any other sign of land for that matter. The clash of cold Labrador air with the warmer water of the Gulf Stream had generated dense fog. The Metagama had been ploughing through it at reduced speed, intermittently sounding her mournful horn.
Breakfast in the first-class and steerage dining rooms was almost over. Some passengers lingered over the second sitting; others were freshening up or taking a walk on one of the decks.
Among the third-class passengers was a young North Irish lad from Ballymoney, a small market town in county Antrim. Two days earlier, in mid-Atlantic, he had quietly celebrated his 18th birthday. Although looking forward to the prospects of adventure and opportunity in the New World, when he thought about the family, the home and friends he had left behind, his excitement was dampened by a loneliness as chill as the surrounding fog.
He was making his way along a passageway below deck when a mighty impact shook the ship from stem to stern, throwing him to the floor and causing the liner to yaw violently. For a moment it appeared that it would surely capsize, but after a few interminable seconds it righted itself. Just as the young man picked himself up the ship lurched in the opposite direction, tossing him against the passageway wall. Struggling against the fierce swaying he managed to make his way up a flight of steps, emerging onto the open deck in time to see the ghostly form of another ship. Shadowy crew members were racing along its deck, pulling on clothes, slipping suspenders over their shoulders without breaking stride. He could hear their excited shouts in a language he didn't understand. Then the other ship, the metal plates of its bow buckled like the folds of an accordion, pulled away from the Metagama and receded into the grey abyss. In an instant it was gone, swallowed by the fog.
Pandemonium had broken out on his own liner. People scurried here and there, some screaming, looking for loved ones. Loud speakers blasted instructions for passengers to go to their muster stations. Life jackets were distributed and hastily donned in preparation for abandoning ship. The throb of the ship's engines, to which everyone had grown accustomed, had abated and although there was other noise it seemed that a deathly quiet had settled over the ship, now at a virtual standstill. Gradually the yawing subsided and the huge liner, 520-feet long by 64-feet wide, settled into a severe list to port, making it hazardous for passengers and crew to move about. To counterbalance the gradually increasing list, passengers were herded onto the starboard side. Lifeboats were swung out on the davits. It was not lost on the young North Irish emigrant that the ship's officers had slipped on belts bearing side-arms.
Surprisingly quickly, the initial panic subsided and passengers huddled against the biting cold, waiting obediently for the order to abandon ship. Crew members moved awkwardly among them giving out cigarettes and chocolates, a sure sign in the North Irish lad's mind that they were doomed to drown.
Three crew members were ordered over the side in lifeboat No. 6 to inspect the extent of the damage. They found water pouring into the vessel through a 15-foot gash, three feet wide. As fate would have it, before the crewmen could be hauled back on board the line holding the lifeboat to the ship snapped. In an instant the small boat was swallowed by the fog and the three men were lost.
Aboard the damaged liner all pumps were activated but they were barely able to keep up with the inflow of water. Nevertheless, the captain calculated that with a calm sea the ship might be able to make it to St. John's harbour. He sent a wireless message that was relayed to J.J. Collins of the Marconi Company in St. John's: "S.O.S. Collided with unknown ship seven miles east south east Cape Race. Dense fog. Number one stokehold damaged. Am proceeding to St. John's."
Later Mr. Collins received another message: "Other ship in collision with S.S. Metagama is S.S. Clara Camus; calling for immediate assistance…." Then, nothing was heard from either damaged ship for hours. About mid-afternoon, from Cabot Tower a vessel was sighted on the horizon, apparently proceeding towards St. John's harbour. It was identified as the Clara Camus, an Italian steamer that had been en route to Havre, France, loaded with Canadian grain when it ran into the passenger ship in the fog.
Meantime, in a gesture that was uncomfortably reminiscent of an event that had happened in these same icy waters 12 years earlier, the liner's orchestra gathered on deck and struck up a medley of airs. The young Ballymoney lad had only been six years of age when the Titanic sank but he was well acquainted with details of the catastrophe. When - with a roll of the drums - the orchestra burst into a rendition of "O God Our Help in Ages Past," he took it as a sure sign that the end was near.
"Take two," said a crew member, proffering cigarettes from a carton of Players Blue. The young man hoped he would have time to smoke the second cigarette before the ship went down.
Fortunately the ocean remained calm and the damaged liner limped towards St. John's. By evening, about an hour after the Clara Camus entered the harbour, the Metagama, now listing to port at a 35 degree angle and with 14 feet of seawater sloshing about in her hold, tied up at the Dock wharf where a crowd of thrill-seekers had assembled to view the spectacle.
With additional pumps the inflow of water was checked, and the danger of imminent sinking was averted. Trays of sandwiches and mugs of coffee were passed around on deck, where everyone had to remain till around 10 a.m. the following morning, at which time passengers and their sea-soaked luggage were transferred to another ship.
Unfortunately, even though every ship in the vicinity was on the look out, there was still no trace of the three crew members lost in the lifeboat. In fact, it would be another week before any word of their fate was reported and the first news was not good. On Saturday, June 28th the Marconi station received a message. "Steamer Cotsworth, latitude 47.17 N, longitude 51.35 W, passed ship's lifeboat half full of water, No. 6 on bow, no occupants." Then, just when all hope for their survival seemed lost a message from Cape Broyle came over the air. The men had been picked up by a fishing schooner and had been transferred to another boat that landed them at Cape Broyle. They were in terrible condition after their ordeal, but glad to be alive. The busy fishing schooner that picked them up was called The Bluenose.
Privately, the young North Irish lad wondered if perhaps the Metagama had been saved without loss of life because he himself had been onboard. Sure hadn't his grandmother told him before leaving Ballymoney that he had been born with a lucky cap and that any sea captain would be happy to have him aboard!
Today, 80 years later, I contemplate these historical events and muse at the capriciousness of fate and happenchance. Had things turned out a little differently I might not be here. For the young lad, who eventually told me the story, was my father. He didn't stay long in Canada that time. But he was to cross the Atlantic by ship several times. On the last sea voyage he landed uneventfully at Halifax's Pier 21 with a family in tow, including me when I was almost the age that he had been when he was nearly shipwrecked off Cape Race back in 1924.
I too was born with a lucky cap, by the way. My grandmother told me.